When I talk about the best times they often reflect the friendships that I have forged in the service. I have risked my life for many of these folks, and even more have done the same for me. When I realize that I have spent 25 years in the service I realize that there aren’t many other things in my life that I have done for 25 years. The good times reflect the successes and the people I have gotten the pleasure to call my second family.
When I think about the bad times, there aren’t many calls that I throw into that group. Sure we had some bad outcomes, but I know on each of those we gave it everything we had and left nothing on the field. Sure, I’d like a second shot at some of them, but I know we always did about everything we could. So when I think about the bad times in the fire service, it focuses more with the internal dealings with people than with the calls. As I reflect back on my years in the service, I realize that I have probably been on all sides of employee practice issues. I know there are times I felt mistreated, there are others who felt I mistreated them, and I have played referee between several parties trying to work through issues with each other.
Employee Practices Introduction
It is important that we realize that while a fire or EMS agency is unique in many aspects it is sheltered from the employment practices issues that challenge any business or organization. While we train our leaders to be excellent strategy and tactics folks, we often fail to spend the appropriate time training to deal with the human resource issues that we face on a daily basis. It is important for all leaders to understand the basic rules and laws governing how we interact with our employees.
When you think about all the things that could go wrong in our organizations and create public scrutiny, we rarely think that an employee practice issue will land us on the front page of the local paper. Many organizations have found that the local press will dedicate a great deal of coverage to trouble at the station when it involves employee practice issues. One Chief told me “twenty years of great public relations from our department was destroyed in one poor choice by an employee”.
So, how do we keep our organization off the front page of the paper and our members out of court, or worse yet jail? Everyone in your organization needs a clear understanding of the basics of good employee practices. This understanding needs to start with your organization’s leadership. Leadership needs to understand the importance of proper training, policies and good workplace practices. Policies need to be in place to address the topics of workplace and sexual harassment, diversity and workplace violence. A workplace assessment should be conducted to identify possible hazards for the organization. Is the building properly locked? Are parking lots well lit? Is there any type of security system? These are all questions to ask, to minimize your external exposure.
Unfortunately the majority of the problems don’t occur from outside sources. The fastest growing number of complaints and claims come from internal conflicts. For the purpose of this article we will refer to members of volunteer organizations as employees. Many of the state and federal laws treat both members and full time employees the same when it comes to employee practice issues. Conflicts can occur internally between employees, or leadership versus employee. Either can be devastating for the organization and there are several checks and balances to have in place to try and prevent them.
The first step is to have a solid interview process. Start with an application and keep an employee file on each employee. Check your local laws to be sure your application and process are legal including what questions you may or may not ask and exactly when in the process you can ask them. It is important to document everything and keep copies in the employee file. There should not be any surprises to an employee about what is kept in their file. Employees should be asked to acknowledge and sign anything that gets placed in their file. It is important to place information into the file anytime corrective action is needed with an employee. If you have to dismiss an employee, at some point this information becomes even more important to justify or show the need for the action.
Policies and Procedures
Your policies should be specific on clear expectations for each class of employee. What is required of them? How will they be evaluated? Who is responsible for doing that? These policies can be made into an employee handbook and should be reviewed on an annual basis. Each employee should know exactly where to find this information and where to go for clarification or additional information. The organization should also conduct an annual review and evaluation of each employee. The review should be signed by the employee and placed into their file. This ongoing review process will help to flush out any issues that may be going on. These reviews should never be just a “feel good” session but should be a frank conversation where both the employee and the employer express any concerns. Any concerns from the employee should be documented and followed up to see if they are founded and need corrective action.
The organization should also have a strong social media policy. While the organization should not completely limit the employee’s freedom of speech, there are certain areas that should be off limits. Many organizations limit any sharing of department related pictures, logos and information obtained while on department business. One area where the lines can become blurred is events that occur outside of the normal operations but involve employees, such as a retirement party, family picnic etc. Good managers should monitor the postings of their employees and offer suggestions in regards to appropriate content or guidance when the posts start to cross the line before they become an issue.
Leadership should also keep a close eye on the morale and behavior of its employees to detect any problems. Indicators of potential issues can include changes in behavior, unusual outbursts or reluctance of an employee to do normal tasks. Everyone is entitled to have a “bad day” now and then but when it starts to become the norm or show a pattern, leadership should become engaged and try to figure out what is going on.
As fire service leaders we have plenty on our plate. Our number one concern always should, and has to, be employee safety. When we think about all the things that could happen to our employees while on duty it can become scary. When you start to research and explore all the harm that can come to employees and the organization through employee practice issues, it becomes even scarier. The sad part is that these issues, just like most fire ground injuries, are completely avoidable. It takes leadership, clear policies and enforcement of the rules to avoid most of these problems. Many times we get that gut feeling that something just isn’t right and yet we fail to act. Good leadership must understand these issues and take action to prevent devastating results to the organization.
David Denniston is the Director of Risk Management for Emergency Services Insurance Program (ESIP) and as Executive Director of the National FARMEDIC training program. Denniston has been in Emergency Services for 20 plus years with the Cortlandville Fire Department in Upstate NY. He has served as Chief of the Department and Fire Commissioner of the Virgil Fire District.